Like my U.S.-born friends, I can finally write about the ordinariness of holidays, of traveling to see “the family.” It is not that everything is familiar, more that I can handle the unfamiliarity with greater ease, even when it is my own unfamiliarity.
Returns “home” are invariably ethnographic, especially for those of us who travel infrequently. Over the course of a few weeks, we learn the unfolding shapes of family trees: the marriages, the deaths, the divorces, the come-we-stays, the never-should-have-beens. We learn about those who are “doing well” and those who are doing “not so well,” and about those who are passed over in silence. We learn, as always, about what counts as achievement, and learn how we have both measured up and failed.
These narratives are also about expectations. More than once, my mother has mentioned that a daughter of a friend has “bought a plot” and intends to “build a house.” It will be mentioned again during my stay, a subtle infection calculated to produce certain results.
This repeated narrative is part of the ordinariness of return. The first time after a long time, one is allowed to be eccentric. The fact of being home takes precedence over much else. After that, others desire to shape one’s life. One must don protective layers.
One learns to manage meetings and encounters. To devote time to those who share one’s interests and passions, to ensure that accidental meetings with former friends never blossom into extended “remember when” sessions, to take political and ideological temperatures and gird one’s loins when necessary. To say no and never show up. To cultivate what feeds one. This last is the only way the ordinary can be so and remain pleasant.
I return with a toothache and metaphors. Disrupted sleep patterns and a mostly empty bottle of Advil.
For the past few weeks, I have been following a discussion on H-Africa on what drugs to take when traveling to Africa, more specifically Ghana. When I arrive at the airport. I receive a document that indicates I have come from a country with Swine Flu.
Malaria vs. Swine Flu.
One is a worldwide epidemic.
We return as much to reconnect as to remind ourselves why we stay away. I return to find the avocado trees in full bloom, the house full of green goodness, and awaken to a diminished appetite. The freshest, most organic food I have had in a while, and I do not desire it. In some corner of the universe, a wicked god laughs.
Returns produce writing. Travel produces writing. Yet, not the lovingly created narratives that Binyavanga writes, developed from plunging into life in all its thickness. I envy him this. Instead, I dip my toes in nearby pools and scan for signs of life and infection. I monitor the color of my toenails, and boil chlorinated tap water. I return to find metaphors, and do not have the skill or patience to parse them.
I return to terms like mũhĩrĩga and itega and ngurario and kũrashia, to declarations from a dying generation about Ũgĩkũyũ and anxieties from my generation about doing things “right.” A cousin married abroad returns to marry here. Talks must be held, gifts exchanged, animals killed. I relish the ceremonial aspects of it—I’m a fag, after all—though I cheerfully refuse to attend any part of it.
Old allergens embrace me and my sneezes change timbre, sound more “at home.”
Black pepper comforts me